Rebellious Poets and Radical Spirits: Indian Parallel Cinema – Il Cinema Ritrovato

(20 – 27 July 2021, Bologna, Italy)

The new strand on Indian Parallel Cinema that I have co-curated with Cecilia Cenciarelli and Shivendra Dungarpur showcases some of the best examples of the early years of Parallel Cinema, which we have titled ‘The Foundational Years’ (69 – 76). This eclectic strand with a strong regional slant looks back at the significance of Parallel Cinema in the broader historical context of alternative Indian Cinema but more importantly attempts to reclaim and reassert the rich creative achievements in the wider cine-geography of the late sixties and early seventies of global film where we saw a concerted shift in terms of aesthetics, form and style. The last ten years has seen an increasing number of Parallel Cinema films being made available for the first time in restored prints; a boon for film preservation and research. However, just as many films still remain out of reach whereby the process of recovery and restoration is likely to be a gradual one and will continue to be dictated by various economic and political factors.

In the past the public screening of Parallel Cinema was achieved through television such as Doordarshan, film societies/collectives and also film studies/educational courses. And in the 1980s, there were major retrospectives of Parallel Cinema that toured internationally, with two prominent programmes at MoMa in New York and the National Theatre in London. Sadly, after the decline of Parallel Cinema in the mid 1990s, many of these films were simply forgotten about and the original prints either disappeared, languished or were lost. We have arguably been playing catch up ever since. The absence of Parallel Cinema from the narrow, Anglo-centric discourse in which film history is taught and discussed in wider film circles is not simply about cultural and historical ignorance but can also be attributed to the ways in which so many of these films have never been programmed publicly outside of India in retrospectives or seasons. Some of this is down to the role of film programmers and curators but some of it is also because of the lack of access, logistics and expensive costs involved in trying to programme or curate alternative Indian cinema particularly outside of India, something that I have witnessed at a distance co-curating the Parallel Cinema season for Il Cinema Ritrovato. It is rare that Parallel Cinema films are screened publicly in their original physical prints which makes this retrospective altogether unique and special for film audiences.

This strand at Bologna is one of the first of its kind in Europe for a long time, and will help to play a part in the on-going process of reclaiming Parallel Cinema and making many of the films accessible to film audiences around the world. The painstaking 4K restoration of Govindan Aravindan’s Kummatty which has been completed in conjunction with Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation, Film Heritage Foundation and Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna is a deeply encouraging sign of the progress Parallel Cinema is making in terms of garnering the recognition it deserves. It is highly likely that Kummatty will be the first Parallel Cinema film to make the leap to Criterion, and if that does happen, it will be another significant step for the canonisation of Parallel Cinema into the realms of film culture and history, and that could potentially act as a gateway for film audiences who have never come across Parallel Cinema before. The eight films we have curated is merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the remarkable thirty-year output of Parallel Cinema which constituted in excess of two hundred and fifty films stretching across many regions and languages.

Chokh / The Eyes (Dir. Utpalendu Chakraborty, 1982, India/Bengali)

The eyes speak, harbouring and chronicling histories, emotional sentiments and even memories. Chokh, a stark political exercise in neorealist aesthetics, opens with the petrified eyes of Jadunath (Om Puri in blistering form) who looks directly at us with a totalizing gaze of defiance. Jadunath, a union leader, has been convicted of murder, and waits impatiently in prison to be executed by the establishment. It is 1975, the time of the Emergency, and dissent is all but unthinkable. Still, the political impulse of the Left remains, manifested in the undeniable resistance articulated by Dr Mukherjee (Anil Chatterjee), a benevolent eye surgeon working at a government hospital, and who in the opening polemic draws the benign connection between poverty and blindness. Against this nexus of economic and social deprivation are inserts of colonial statues, spectral reminders of a colonial legacy that bears down on the people of West Bengal. It is a Bengal familiar to us from Sen’s Calcutta Trilogy in which the Naxals are in a constant struggle against a rotten underbelly intact after independence, transitioning from one elite to another.

As a final request before his execution, Jadunath consents to a conditional donation of his eyes to a fellow worker who is blind and in need of a transplant. Jadunath’s friends, comrade workers who were also in the union, stake their claim to the eyes, informing Dr Mukherjee of the news. It transpires that Jethia, industrialist and owner of a jute mill, has a young teenage son who is going blind and is also in need of an urgent eye transplant. Jethia’s son is a victim of political violence, blinded in a bomb blast, supposedly instigated by Naxals. With political support from the establishment, Jethia reaches out to the superintendent working at the hospital and convinces him that his son should be the recipient of the next pair of available eyes. The corrupt superintendent complies and sanctions the operation without approval from the panel at the hospital, abandoning his ethical responsibilities. In this contestation between rich and poor, director Utpalendu Chakraborty lays bare the ways in which entitlement and privilege bypasses the layers of bureaucracy typically faced by the powerless unionised workers who can do nothing but plead indefinitely. Within less than twenty-four hours, Jethia has his son admitted and readied for an eye operation that for many poor blind people is a distant dream.

Upon visiting Dr Mukherjee at his home, Jadunath’s worker friends relay a stark truth about Jethia’s crimes. The first of two extended flashbacks, details Jadunath’s influence to organise a collective resistance to Jethia’s inequitable rule. We learn that Jethia has dismissed labourers at the factory in an attempt to weaken the union but Jadunath refuses to back down, insisting the labourers be reinstated for the strike to end. When Jethia sends scab labourers to suppress the strike, Jadunath retaliates and orders the striking labourers to lie down at the gates of the factory, defying both the police and Jethia. Outraged, Jethia resorts to violent thuggery, sending his goons to drag the labourers out of their homes, humiliating them in front of their families, and executing three of them in cold blood. However, when Jadunath hears of this, he too retaliates with political violence, killing Jethia’s brother and the manager of the jute mill. Later Jadunath is arrested, convicted of murder and sentenced to be hanged. Unlike Jethia’s violence and killings, which is legitimised by the establishment, Jadunath’s response is framed as terrorist acts against the state, leading to his incarceration. The union of the factory labourers is undermined, and essentially neutered. Jethia’s unchecked power to use violence to protect the status quo emerges as a terrifying metaphor for the 1975 Emergency while Jadunath’s imprisonment and death symbolises the victims of the Left who were rounded up, persecuted and made to disappear.

Armed with this new wider historical and political context, Dr Mukherjee resists the unruly demands of the superintendent, arguing he cannot operate on Jethia’s son until he has seen and verified the papers. Dr Mukherjee recognises a case of conditional donation is not only an ethical issue and unmasks the entitled political machinations of Jethia in getting what he wants and at all costs. Nonetheless, the superintendent takes Dr Mukherjee out of the equation and assigns the operation to another surgeon. It is only later when Jethia reads a hospital file does he come to realise the donating party is none other than Jadunath, which horrifies him to such an extent that he cancels the operation. This discovery by Jethia leads to the second of two flashbacks. In this flashback Jadunath is at loggerheads with the owners of the factory and refuses to deal with any kind of revisionism to the demands of the workers, demarcating his intense political integrity and incorruptible nature for which he will have to pay a price. The thought of his son inheriting the eyes of a supposed criminal leads to further outrage, and in a final act of defilement, Jethia instructs his goons to steal the eyes from the hospital and dispose of them, which they do, burying the eyes as if to silence and smother what remains of Jadunath’s political dissent. For the establishment particularly capitalism, the physical destruction of Jadunath has to be totalizing since it comes to exist as proof of not only their unspeakable dread but paralysing omnipotence.

GHATASHRADDHA / THE RITUAL (Dir. Girish Kasaravalli, 1977, India [Kannada])

The opening titles of Ghatashraddha unfold over the bark of a tree in close up, an abstract image that has an unremitting primordial sentiment. Juxtaposed to this singular image is a rhythmic drum beat that is violently out of control, characterising the ways in which Girish Kasaravalli intends to disrupt with a rejoinder to religious orthodoxy expressly Brahminical hypocrisy and casteism. Released in 1977, and coming at the peak of Parallel Cinema, Kasaravalli’s seminal debut along with films like Samskara were an extension of the literary Navya Movement in Kannada in the 1970s critiquing the Brahmin elite. When Parallel Cinema first emerged in the late 1960s, it was a resolutely iconoclastic approach to making films, upending traditional storytelling methods, experimenting with aesthetics and smashing apart conventional themes. If at first it appeared that iconoclasm was merely a reactive expression, unleashing political and aesthetic forces, the rupture of this particular moment was sustained and re-emerged continuously as Parallel Cinema spread regionally.

Based on U. R. Ananthamurthy’s writings, a key voice in the Navya movement, the story takes place in a tight knit religious milieu, a Brahmin enclave complete with Vedic school and temple, framed by Kasaravalli as cut off from the rest of society, existing in a non-temporal state. Nani, a young Brahmin boy, arrives at the school for his Vedic education. Terrified by his new surroundings and bullied by the older boys, Nani strikes up a friendship with Yamuna, the widowed daughter of Udupa who also lives and works at the enclave as a Vedic scholar. In the opening shot, coins are placed into puja thali, which one of the priests carries through a congregation of women in prayers led by Udupa, a Vedic scholar and widower. A seemingly innocuous detail, signifying the exchange of money for prayers, is the first of many refrains that suggests religion exists in a incongruous state, seemingly impossible to adhere to its many precepts.

Ghatashraddha draws its power from three terrifying sequences. The first is the abortion of Yamuna’s unborn child, a clandestine affair that takes places at night and is starkly intercut with a drunken reverie around a log fire, a notably expressionistic rendering of a traumatic pain. The second sequence sees Yamuna attempting suicide as she pushes her hand and arm deep inside a snake hole only to be rescued by Nani. The third and final sequence comes towards the end and details the ritual of ex-communication (conducted by Udupa) which sees the expulsion of Yamuna from the Brahmin community; effectively ostracized, the final image of Yamuna with her shaved head, left to ruin, is a figurative manifestation of both patriarchal violation and religious hypocrisy. Moreover, Ghatashraddha can also be read as a coming of age film; Nani’s tearful departure from the Brahmin enclave runs parallel with the marginalisation of Yamuna, both emerging as victims of a historical, social and structural trauma that Kasaravalli critiques with a febrile eloquence.

BHUVAN SHOME (Dir. Mrinal Sen, 1969, India) – ‘Big Bad Bureaucrat Reformed by Rustic Belle’

bhuvan shome

I’ve only really started to look at Bhuvan Shome so here are some tentative thoughts about the film, which I hope to return to at a later date.

Bhuvan Shome is often cited as having initiated the New Indian Cinema movement. Released in 1969, along with Sara Akash and Uski Roti, as a triptych, the films were aided by loans from the FFC, a state institution set up in 1960 by Nehru. In its early years the FFC tended to back already established or successful filmmakers such as Satyajit Ray who was central to attempts to cultivate a high brow cultural identity of state-led film patronage. With Nehru’s passing in 1964 and Indira Gandhi’s rise to power, the FFC underwent some significant changes including the installation of a new chairman B.K. Karanjia, Arun Kaul and Mrinal Sen’s New Cinema decree and finally the FFC’s decision to support low budget, offbeat films. Legend has it that Indira Gandhi approved the loan for Bhuvan Shome, setting in motion Parallel Cinema. Bhuvan Shome is a film that is more important in terms of where it is placed in Indian film history, as a cultural, historical artefact, and less substantial as a piece of cinema. It may still be Mrinal Sen’s most successful commercial project and is often talked about with great affection by those critics and audiences who have championed Parallel Cinema. 1968 is a crossroads for the New Left movement and although I would argue Apanjan, directed by Tapan Sinha, exploring the impact of the Naxalite movement, predates Bhuvan Shome, acting as a precursor to the beginnings of Parallel Cinema, Sen’s film shares the privilege of marking the official start of the movement.

If we look at 1969 considerately, two other films are of relevance here; Yash Chopra’s Iteffaq and Satyajit Ray’s Days and Nights in the Forest. The discourse and canonization of Parallel Cinema gravitates to the triptych but I would argue it is a lot more complicated than the linear historiography that is often presented about this critical moment in Indian film history. It clearly is a moment that needs to revised and reclaimed in a much wider international context that saw Indian cinema conversing ideologically and stylistically with New Cinemas in both Europe and Latin America. Perhaps I am pushing it a little by acknowledging Ittefaq, clearly a product of the Hindi film industry, but still it is a cursory failure that briefly pointed to a compromised experimentation with film form by an emerging populist director. As for, Days and Nights in the Forest, this is a Ray film, which I have often said is overlooked, but since it was not directly part of the FFC project, Ray’s film can be situated in a modernist framework in which the triptych also falls into. On hindsight, it is Uski Roti, which is identifiable as a true break in terms of formalism, not Bhuvan Shome or Sara Akash, although the latter do use obvious self-reflexive devices. Yet as we all know Uski Roti was never released in cinemas, nor were many of Kaul’s early films. What makes Bhuvan Shome instructive in trying to historicise Parallel Cinema is not only the wider cinematic debates it triggered particularly from Satyajit Ray, a seemingly less antagonistic continuation of the very public conversation that ensued between Ray and Sen on the politics of Akash Kusum, but that it carried with it a new form of state patronage, one that had moved on from Nehru’s modernist ideals to something slightly more unconventional but not avant-garde. In many ways, this was Indira continuing to determine film policy, something that she had been involved since the late 1950s.

Vinay Lal describes Bhuvan Shome as an ‘expressionist exploration of the politics of class’, which amounts to a political reading of a film that is often labelled as a light comedy, offbeat and expressly apolitical in some respects. Lal bring up the equation of class which is critical and Bhuvan Shome does undeniably have a comical undertone. In many respects, it would be perhaps less objectionable to label Bhuvan Shome as a melodrama about class. The story follows Mr. Shome, a bureaucratic senior officer in the Indian Railway, who embarks on a duck hunting expedition in Gujarat, only to meet a spirited village belle, Gauri. Sen takes a loosely episodic approach to the narrative, focusing largely on the comical, gentle interactions between Shome and Gauri. It is Shome’s class snobbery that comes undone as Gauri exposes him for the buffoon he is, and steadily making him realise that going native, adopting the ways of the local, points to an affirmative class interaction. Gauri humanises Shome and disentangles the officious penchants, sending him back to the city and the office as a man transformed by her charms. But how should we read the story of the state bureaucrat and the ‘rustic belle’? What does it reveal about Indira Gandhi’s attitudes of the time, towards film and culture? Or perhaps there is a danger here of over determination, of trying to find a correlation between the politics of the film and the cultural, ideological politics of the day? The Naxalite movement was at its peak when Bhuvan Shome was released, and the unrest in Calcutta was about to be memorialized in both Ray and Sen’s work. At the start of Bhuvan Shome, Sen acknowledges the Naxalite movement, inserting actuality into the montage of Bengal with footage of protest, unrest. This might be the only historicising that takes place in the film but it certainly signposts the alternate politicised space Sen was about to take up in the next phase of his career, films which have been questioned for their supposed radicalism.

Like much of Parallel Cinema, not much attention has been given to the films themselves, and their is a dearth of textual analysis especially in terms of exploring film form, aesthetics and representational issues. Much has been written, although superficially, about Bhuvan Shome’s significance to Parallel Cinema yet little discourse exists about the construction of the film itself. In fact, amongst the triptych it is Sara Akash that asks to be re-inserted fully into the genesis of Parallel Cinema’s historiography, mainly because, of the three filmmakers, Basu Chatterjee was the one who moved most sharply to take up a centre ground, becoming part of Middle Cinema. In that shift and for supposedly selling out, Chatterjee’s career is the one which has become most prone to attack.

For further reading on Bhuvan Shome see Megan Carrigy’s chapter on the film in The Cinema of India (ed.) (2009) by Lalitha Gopalan, London: Wallflower Press.

For Vinay Lal on Mrinal Sen see: https://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/southasia/Culture/Cinema/Mrinal.html